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  • Writer's picturedavid malmberg

Terror by Night...A Ventriloquial Nightmare

Throughout most of my career, I have had discussions with other performers about the horrors stories that can happen on the road. It seems to be a universal experience. Today we have missed flights, lost luggage, car accidents, breakdowns, weather related storms and a host of other situations that arise when traveling to and from shows. Curiously, performers, when under contract with a paycheck in sight will do most anything to make it to a show. Indeed, the paycheck is a strong motivator often times causing performers to put their lives on the line!

This has always been the case. John Schaibley, in his book, ‘Memoirs of a Ventriloquist,

spends a considerable amount of time speaking of the arduous journeys he and his wife took crisscrossing America at the turn of the last century. Likewise Fred Ketch, in many Vent-O-Gram articles told of horror stories on the road. Except in his day, travel was not by air or by car, but by train. Meaning, he was often on a train for days to get to an engagement.

So, let's go to another time. Let's go back about a hundred years ago and read an account by ventriloquist Fred Ketch (Vent-O-Gram 1965 Vol 3 No. 2) of one particular road adventure.

It was in August, 1920. Edie and I had spent our summer vacation with her folks in Missoula, Montana.

We were booked to open at the Pantages Theatre in Seattle, Washington in two days.

This was a night and day journey by train from Missoula. So we left on the Milwaukee Line at 11:00 that night. All the folks were down at the railway station to see us off.

Milwaukee Railroad Routes

As the train pulled out we prepared for bed. We had a lower berth.

There was a nationwide strike on at this time. All the lines attempted to keep the rolling stock going as best they could. But as the equipment wore out, it could only be replaced by whatever was available. In this case, it was a matter of pressing an old wooden Pullman car into service. It was the same car that we were in!

Old Pullman Car

We were soon fast asleep. We slept until the early morning, when we were awakened by what seemed to be a commotion in the aisle. There was a shuffling of feet, but not a vocal sound of any kind.

The train had been stopped for a considerable time. We looked out the window, it wasn’t quite dawn…still dark but light enough to find that we were way out in the country along side of a big river and on grade.

I grabbed my wallet that I had under my pillow and looked out between the curtains into the aisle. It was pitch black. Then I ventured out to the forward end of the car, feeling my way. But as I progressed, I ran into a dense smoke. It became worse and worse as I proceeded. So I retreated back to the berth and told Edie of the dire situation we were in. We became panicky, I must admit. We found out later that the smoke came from an electrical short.

The only way of escape was through the window. So I made three jams with my right fist and broke the heavy windowpane. I got out first with the help of some people on the ground. Then we dragged Edie out.

There we stood. Edie in her nightgown and I in my shorts with a wallet clasped in my hand. But I noticed that Edie had blood spattered on the front of her nightgown and felt sure that the windowpane had cut her. Then, I looked at my right wrist and noticed the blood spurting out of my artery where it had been cut. A spurt came out with each beat of my heart. I had three gashes in my right forearm, but the one at the wrist was the most severe. But luckily enough the tendons were not cut. The blood was stopped and we were given blankets for protection from exposure. We all stood and watched the car slowly burn up with all our portable belongings except for the wallet I still clutched in my hand.

Our car was the next to last in the train. The last car was an express car. Both were lost.

These two last cars had been disconnected from the main train itself. When the porter noticed the smoke coming out of the men’s smoking compartment, he had pulled the emergency cord to stop the train.

Train Coupler

He then rushed out and disconnected the two last cars from the main train. He had the presence of mind to set the brakes on the last two cars. Then he gave the signal to start the train until it was separated from the burning cars.

Had he not set the brakes it was very likely that our two cars would have run away on the grade which most likely would have ended in a derailment as well as the consuming fire. It might have ended up in the river.

Luckily I had all my keys in my wallet, so it was easy for me to go into the baggage car to our trunk that contained the remainder of our things.

There was no doctor on the train. But they did find a bottle of whisky to put on my wounds despite prohibition!

We arrived in Seattle that afternoon. There was an ambulance awaiting me; I was whisked off to the hospital. I had five stitches taken in my wrist for the gash. The other two gashes were not so deep.

I stayed in the hospital one night. It was two weeks before I was able to work again. We opened at the Pantages Theatre in San Francisco and continued with the circuit to the closing date, which was in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

This episode only demonstrates some of the hardships and dangerous experiences entertainers must go through. Also why the insurance companies wouldn’t allow a double indemnity clause in my policy.

Let’s look back at what transpired and what might have happened.

1. We were the last ones to leave the burning car.

2. No one aroused us or alerted us. If we hadn’t awakened, it might have been a different story.

3. If the gash in my wrist had been just a little deeper, it would have cut the tendons of my right hand, which would have altered my future in the entertaining profession.

The amusement public little recognizes the hardships entertainers go through. But we choose this profession and are resigned to carry on, realizing that we live in an entirely different world; maybe a topsy-turvy world. We work while all others relax and enjoy themselves.

It was planned that way.

Fred Ketch. 1965

Moral of the story: Hold on to your wallet!

© 2018 Swampsong, LLC

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